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Under Osman’s Tree

The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Environmental History

Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, had a dream in which a tree sprouted from his navel. As the tree grew, its shade covered the earth; as Osman’s empire grew, it, too, covered the earth. This is the most widely accepted foundation myth of the longest-lasting empire in the history of Islam, and offers a telling clue to its unique legacy. Underlying every aspect of the Ottoman Empire’s epic history—from its founding around 1300 to its end in the twentieth century—is its successful management of natural resources. Under Osman’s Tree analyzes this rich environmental history to understand the most remarkable qualities of the Ottoman Empire—its longevity, politics, economy, and society.
The early modern Middle East was the world’s most crucial zone of connection and interaction. Accordingly, the Ottoman Empire’s many varied environments affected and were affected by global trade, climate, and disease. From down in the mud of Egypt’s canals to up in the treetops of Anatolia, Alan Mikhail tackles major aspects of the Middle East’s environmental history: natural resource management, climate, human and animal labor, energy, water control, disease, and politics. He also points to some of the ways in which the region’s dominant religious tradition, Islam, has understood and related to the natural world. Marrying environmental and Ottoman history, Under Osman’s Tree offers a bold new interpretation of the past five hundred years of Middle Eastern history.

352 pages | 17 halftones, 6 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2017

History: Environmental History, Middle Eastern History

History of Science



“‘The Ottoman Empire was an ecosystem.’ Thus, historian Mikhail concludes his rich, part socioeconomic, part environmental history of early modern Ottoman Egypt. Filling a hole in the historiography with a breathtaking array of cases, themes, and illustrations, Mikhail offers an ideal pedagogical tool for all levels of university courses. He digs into his analytical tool box and reveals an Egypt deeply integrated into the larger world, both economically and ecologically. From accounts of droughts and bubonic plagues to the aftereffects of volcanic eruptions in Iceland, Mikhail’s contribution opens a new prism through which to study human interactions with nature. Perhaps the most valuable contribution is the author's charting of the vibrant synthesis of life patterns between peasants, local landowners, and imperial governors and the ebbs and flows of the natural life upon which the Ottoman Empire’s wealthiest province depended. Add to the mix the equally complex (sometimes deadly) relationship Egyptians necessarily had with beasts of burden, rats, and fleas, all sharing the fate of the temperamental seasonal flooding of the Nile, and this book makes for an outstanding addition to any library. Essential.”


“In presenting the early modern Ottoman regime as relatively benign—at least environmentally benign—Alan Mikhail is upsetting a commonly held view of Ottoman rule as singularly destructive and backward looking. . . . In fact, by using the examples of Egyptian food exports to different parts of the Empire—most notably to the Hijaz—and timber imports into Egypt from Anatolia, Professor Mikhail shows how provinces were interdependent and that the centre–periphery model is misleading. Watching the author demolish such preconceptions is one of the many pleasures of reading this book. In making a notable contribution to environmental history, from Nile water, to mud, to animals, crops, and finally to humans, Professor Mikhail also helps us to understand how the Ottoman Empire worked as a political system.”


Under Osman’s Tree frames the Ottoman Empire as an ecosystem. By emphasizing the complex relationships between imperial power and nature, Mikhail introduces a dizzying range of human and nonhuman actors, demonstrating how animals, water, silt, microbes, trees, and volcanoes might recast more traditional readings of sultans, bureaucrats, and peasants. . . . Mikhail offers another trailblazing contribution to the burgeoning field of Middle Eastern environmental history. It is a welcome addition to advanced undergraduate and graduate syllabi, laying out an ambitious agenda for colleagues working on Middle Eastern and global environmental histories.”

Environmental History

“Certainly the best work ever on Ottoman environmental history. Brings the Middle East into the global picture in as comprehensive a way as can possibly be imagined.”

Roger Owen, Harvard University

 “This is an outstanding book, carefully written and timely. Mikhail has brought the tools of environmental history to bear in this fresh telling of Egyptian, Ottoman, and Middle Eastern history. He focuses on the last five hundred years, after Egypt became the crown jewel of the Ottoman Empire, and masterfully embeds his history into the complex ecologies surrounding the Nile River, an enduring source of both life and cruel natural disasters. With thoughtful thematic categories driving his analysis, Mikhail makes an important contribution not just to Middle Eastern history, but to how a new generation of historians must view the relationship between people and the changing face of our planet, particularly during the new uncertainty of the Anthropocene Epoch.”

Brett L. Walker, Montana State University

“Focusing on early modern Egypt, Mikhail puts power and knowledge in the Ottoman Empire in conversation with environmental relations—the movement of water, the accumulation of silt, the distribution of food, the need for wood for ships, the spread of disease, the possession and use of animals as sentient commodities, climatic fluctuations, and fundamental changes in the organization of human and animal labor.  The result is a reinterpretation of the Ottoman Empire as an ecosystem that expands the possibilities of environmental history.”

Richard White, Stanford University

“With this rich and accessible study of the relationship between human communities and their natural environment in Ottoman Egypt, Mikhail offers us an original interpretation of Ottoman history. Rarely does a new book make us rethink completely our assumptions about a subject matter we think we know well. Under Osman’s Tree does precisely that, and as such it is a worthy successor to Fernand Braudel’s magisterial classic, The Mediterranean.

Resat Kasaba, University of Washington

"The author is a gifted storyteller, and he spins his sources into a vivid and often colourful portrait of eighteenth-century Egyptian society.... Through his rich source-base, moreover, Mikhail masterfully demonstrates the value of a methodological approach to the history of empires that reaches beyond imperial archives and the scope of the central administration. The book’s greatest strengths lie not only in its nuanced depiction of rural life and its critical update of Middle Eastern historiography, but also in its composition."

English Historical Review

Table of Contents

Preface: Osman’s Tree
Introduction: The Global Environmental History of the Middle East
Part One: Water
1. Irrigation Works
2. History from Below
3. Silt and Empire
Part Two: Work
4. Rural Muscle
5. Expert Measures
Part Three: Animal
6. Animal Capital
7. Brute Force
Part Four: Elemental
8. Food and Wood
9. Plague Ecologies
10. Egypt, Iceland, SO2
Conclusion: Empire as Ecosystem


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association: M. Fuat Koprulu Book Prize

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